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Massive mudslides close road through Nantahala Gorge

BRYSON CITY – N.C. Department of Transportation crews are working around the clock on U.S. 19/74 until the highway is open through the Nantahala Gorge.

A severe deluge dropped 3.5 inches of rain in the gorge on Saturday and triggered slides that covered the road in four locations within a half-mile stretch on the western side of the gorge and spread debris from the mountainside into the river at three locations.

Transportation officials anticipate opening the road to traffic on Tuesday afternoon or evening.

“Slides one, two and three had no structural damage to the road, but at slide four, we need to build it back and that should take two more days,” Division 14 Maintenance Engineer Wesley Grindstaff said. “We will be working 24 hours a day because this is a critical roadway.”

More than 50 NCDOT employees and contract employees are removing mud, trees and rocks from the road from at three largest locations after clearing the smallest debris pile early Sunday. Those employees are utilizing 15 trucks, four front-end loaders and three track-excavators in addition to chainsaws and hand tools.

Three locations are expected to be cleaned by Monday morning in time to begin repairing small sections of guardrail and patching asphalt in spots.

The largest site — where the debris flow washed away 80 feet of guardrail and shoulder while rocks broke limbs 25 feet above the road — requires additional repairs.

Two excavators dug out loose soil beside the road Sunday morning and began rebuilding the embankment between the road and the river Sunday afternoon. Two more days of work remain to rebuild the support, the road surface and safety features.

NCDOT crews from four counties — Cherokee and Graham from the west, with Swain and Jackson from the east — started work on Saturday night. They cleared a path to remove between 12-15 vehicles that had been stuck between slides around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Engineers arrived on site at sunrise Sunday to assess the damage and develop the plan employees are enacting now. Early estimates indicate that repairs will cost around $500,000.

“Sometimes we’ll be out here cleaning up a little mud or small trees in this gorge after rain events,” Grindstaff said. “But nothing like this. With an average of 4,500 cars per day on this road — there’s more in the summer and rafting season — we know how important is to get the road open quickly.”